There is a distinct pleasure derived from having a secret hiding place, made even more satisfying when that tiny refuge is in plain sight and is part and parcel with a warm meal. One such magical hole in the wall presented itself to me years ago in the form of Cafe Tibet, which opened in 2008. On what’s now thought of as Cortelyou Road’s restaurant row, Cafe Tibet sits nestled between the Cortelyou Q train station, and a shop simply called Asian Grocery. If you blink in those few steps you’re bound to think you imagined the orange signage on its narrow storefront.
Station gates extend up to the front door, as you are met with semi-outdoor seating, protected by an awning that allows you the option of both people and train watching as you hide out in this orange concrete alcove sipping traditional butter tea (minus the yak milk) or tucking into a generous portion of curry. The interior of the space is narrow, lined on each side with small tables, equally filled with first dates as it is with locals trying to recapture the flavor of eastern travels long-past. The walls, painted green, red and yellow, and full of Buddhist art and prayers, keep the dimly lit dining room cozy and welcoming, whether you’re lucky enough to have the place to yourself, or it’s a packed weekend night.
The menu is accommodating to vegans, carnivores, and most stops between, and from what I can tell no one has to sacrifice on flavor. Prices hover below $15 an entree, and you’re likely to go home with enough leftovers for another meal. On my most recent visit, me and a friend opted for steamed vegetable fire momos, a classic Tibetan dumpling filled with spinach, cabbage and ginger and smothered in a house special tomato-based hot sauce. Thick skinned and satisfying, a plate of eight could be a stand-alone meal, especially if you go the fried and beef filled route, but is perfect shared, much like many of the menu options. We decided to go family-style so we could sample a bit of everything, splitting a plate of chili shrimp, and a couple of veggie dishes. Our entrees came with an option of rice or tingmo, a Tibetan steamed bread that has a waxy appearance but a lovely springy texture, so we had plenty of starches for sopping up the sweet chili sauce of the shrimp, with its hearty chunks of peppers and onion. Our Shogo Ngopa, a spicy curried potato and spinach dish, was full of generous slices of garlic and ginger, perfect nourishment for a rainy autumn night. When the waitress asks if you want hot sauce, the answer should always be yes. You’ve got two homemade options, hot or mild, and they don’t lie about the strength of either. Don’t be shy with it, you’ll likely be thinking of their warm nutty flavors for the rest of the week.
As you enjoy your meal, whose elements arrive slowly and then all at once, you’ll notice the details of this flavorful fortress. Each patron has a tin water cup, which is rarely found empty, the rich delicious chai is served in mismatched mugs reminiscent of a teacher’s lounge. Mine simply said “I <3 Tea”, and given the urge to keep ordering refills, felt spot on. There is an entryway to Asian Grocery over by the shared bathroom, convenient for when you remember that it’s cash-only and an ATM trip is imminent, but try not to get lost perusing the shelves full of hard to find spicy noodles and vaguely alien-looking produce (it’s just bitter melon, don’t be such a baby). You can hear the kitchen staff carrying on as you dip into the bathroom, full of photographs of the Himalayas, and feel all the momo steam waft through the narrow hall as you rejoin your party. The space is intimate, you’ll hear snips of neighboring conversations and catch a glimpse at each colorful dish they ordered, making notes for your next visit.
When the walls gently rumble as trains depart, shaking you momentarily back into the reality that you’re on a busy street in Brooklyn, and not hidden away on a mountain, take another sip of tea and enjoy these sacred moments of sustenance. The MTA and all its chaos is waiting for you on the other side, forever reminding us of the duality of life.
Cafe Tibet, 1510 Cortelyou Rd, Ditmas Park. Mon-Sun 12:30pm-10:30pm